Markham and Richard are disagreeing about the famous WTC jumper photo. Markham notes:
The Falling Man is the perfect news photo. It’s clean and symmetrical; it has incredible impact on the reader; it portrays the horror of an event, a warzone disaster situation, without being sullied by debris, smoke, or facial expressions. We don’t need to see what he’s ecaping or what awaits him, it’s understood. That you can’t see the man’s face, or indeed pick out any features at all, draws you into speculation, and all of a sudden you’re thinking deeply about the photo; about the subject’s motivations; about the last minutes before he stepped out of the window frame into a freefall over New York.
The image isn’t beautiful, it’s unbearable. Its clinical starkness, denuded of its explanation in its austerity, seems to lie. I agree with Markham that the image serves as an invitation, but precisely because it is so inadequate and so sickening. The untruth of the image is its false serentity and its artificial singularity. The gut reaction says – ‘no, it wasn’t clean, it wasn’t ethereal, it was sordid, fleshy, evil, and real’. It’s not art, it’s not beautiful, it was murder like never seen before.
I watched the documentary that Markham refers to in his post, a fascinating documentary it was. What I got most from it was that the writer of the original piece didn’t do his job. He went to a family and essentially told them it was their father, before he had looked at other photos that Richard Drew took of the same man. It strikes me that he should have done some proper research before even hinting to a family that the photo might represent their loved one.
That aside is the issue of printing the photo in the first place, which a paper in Pennsylvania did in fullness on September 12th 2001, much to the chagrin of many of their readers. What strikes me is that the photo is, as Markham describes, almost serene in its composure. Having seen the other photos taken seconds before, and seconds after, it was the most serene of photos that depict the man in various stages of falling. This points to the selection of the photographer rather than the serenity, or not, of the photographs.
This issue was raised in the past. Glenn Reynolds posted a photo and later removed it. I posted about Glenn’s posting back in 2003, where I linked to a different photograph of a jumper, perhaps less ‘artistic’ in nature.
I tend to agree with Markham on this one. Perhaps ‘beautiful’ is too strong a word, more like thought-provoking, provocative, even insightful. Richard though takes a different line, instead arguing that the image was cropped (it wasn’t), or that it doesn’t take in the surrounding events, that it is a picture in isolation. I don’t agree fully. We know the surrounding events. However by their nature photographs take things in apparent isolation, so I think readers are intelligent enough to take this on board.
The picture is exactly what it shows, the last moments of someone’s life. Because it happens in the modern context maybe we are more shocked by it, because we remember that day maybe we are more inclined to react emotionally. I often watch documentaries, and what strikes me is the uncontroversial nature of depicting the shooting dead of civilians – maybe if it’s more removed from the observer, and happened before the life time of the individual it makes the images more acceptable. I can’t count how many times I have watched real footage of people being killed by firing squad in Second World War documentaries. But have I been conditioned to think less of it because the footage is old, lacking colour and is a little jumpy?
Is the person about to be shot by Nazi soldiers any less gruesome than a person jumping from the World Trade Center? You are watching the last moments of someone’s life in both instances. And, as far as I’m concerned, both are compelling precisely because it is the last moments of someone’s life. And that’s the key word, artistic understandings aside, the photo is compelling.
Finally Richard’s assertion that it was ‘murder like never seen before’, while technically true, strikes me as somewhat misleading. Yes September 11th was a unique event, but then all events are unique. Murders happen all the time, wholescale murder has happened all too regularly in the history of humanity. As Westerners perhaps September 11th strikes home in a way no other murder has struck us – that it was people like us. Unfortunately murder just like this has happened countless times, not just in modern history – that it happened in our time, live on television, perhaps makes it more poignant and emotive.
If we were to take a recent example, Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer-prize winning photo from 1968, depicted the moment before the execution of a Viet Cong soldier Nguyen Van Lem, created equal controversy when it was published. It too depicts the last moments of a man’s life, but I ask myself, do I react the same to that photo as I do the jumper photo? The answer for me at least is no. It might have something to do with being unable to relate properly to the VC figure, or to the circumstances surrounding his death. But it remains that I feel more emotionally attached to photos relating to September 11 than to photos of Vietnam or World War Two.
In the end, it is an entirely subjective analysis as to what you find beautiful or not. I don’t find this particular jumper photo sickening as Richard does, to me it depicts a person who, facing the choice of death by inferno or being crushed by a building collapse, chose to end their life by jumping. It was essentially the only thing left for them to choose. So yes the photo does take some sense of isolation from events, as a result I would argue it be published without fear, but perhaps could be moderated by appearing with other photos from the same sequence – giving a better indication of the nature of the fall – a dreadful 10 seconds long.